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At the White House

"I WILL GET IT BUILT”: President Trump tried to sell the country a positive vision during last night's State of the Union address. But the darker, nativist version of America — the one in which violent migrants stampede across the border committing crime — was the not-so-subtle subtext.

Trump didn't go so far as to declare a national emergency to build his wall along the southern border. But he painted the fight for a physical barrier in moral terms, urging Americans “to defend our very dangerous southern border out of love and devotion to our fellow citizens and to our country.” Embracing illegal immigration, Trump said, was “cruel” not “compassionate” and that no issue better divided political elites from mainstream Americans. 

That part of the speech was as much the voice of Stephen Miller, who helped author the address, as the president himself. One of the few original advisers still standing in the Trump White House, the hard-liner's fingerprints were all over Trump's confrontational immigration words, a taunt that is leading the president to a seemingly inevitable clash with congressional Democrats as a second deadline to fund the government nears on Feb. 15.

  • “This unity speech is ridiculous,” former White House aide Stephen K. Bannon told Power Up. “After you lose an election and box yourself in on this negotiation is not when you pitch unity.” 
  • “China, the wall, Syria and Afghanistan — the three legs of why [Trump] is president are coming together. If he blinks on China and he blinks on the wall, I don't think he runs in 2020.  I think he throws in the towel," Bannon added.  

Described by colleagues as maniacally obsessed with immigration but at times lacking in political savvy, Miller's loyalty to Trump is responsible for his longevity and expanded influence as someone who has their hand on Trump's spoken word on nearly ever issue, according to some of Miller's former colleagues. 

  • “He's the keeper of the campaign promises — Bannon was the keeper of that list and now he's gone,” a former White House official told Power Up. “He also has a pen on every speech that the president gives. Miller is crafting all of them, which means that he has the last scrub of all of the policy. It’s a pretty simple recipe to be honest,” the official said of Miller's influence. 
  • “Miller's not a very good speechwriter but he has Trump's voice,” a second former White House official told us. 
  • Trump “is expected to return to the same nativist themes of fear of 'criminal illegal aliens”'and economic usurpation in 2020,” my colleagues Josh Dawsey and Anne Gearan report, topics Miller is also keen to message. 

Those inside the White House characterize Miller as an uber-strategist for policy objectives, much like Karl Rove or David Axelrod were in previous West Wings on politics. But Miller's imprint is also reflective of Trump's basic instincts on the core issue of immigration.

Aides say the key to Miller's staying power is that when things go wrong in Trump world, he successfully stays in the policy lane and makes necessary accommodations with the voices of moderation, including first daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Trump touched last night on other hot topics for conservatives, like abortion and deregulation, but his calls for “greatness” over “gridlock” and “incredible progress” over “pointless destruction” rang hollow for Democrats in the chamber.  

  • “Trump began and ended his 82-minute speech with a unifying tone that was in conflict with many of his own actions and statements, especially over the past month, one of the more contentious of his presidency,” report The Post's Philip Rucker and Toluse Olorunnipa of what they called a “dissonant” address.
  • The New York Times's Peter Baker reports the concept of comity also did not sit well with the president himself: “Still stung by his failure to use a partial government shutdown to pressure Congress into paying for his border wall, Mr. Trump has hardly been in the mood for collaboration with the other party, anyway,” Baker reports. “As he and his team have drafted his address in recent days, he has groused about the text, complaining that it is too gentle on Democrats, according to people briefed on the matter.”

And the bipartisan ovetures were a far cry from Trump's private comments to network news anchors with whom he had lunch earlier in the day, according to the Times's Baker and Michael Grynbaum. 

  • Despite all of Tuesday's talks of unity, “the president continues to tell advisers that he wants to make his 2020 campaign a strident referendum on immigration — seeing it as the issue that won him the presidency. And he is still considering a national emergency or other executive action to build the border wall,” The Post's Anne Gearan and Josh Dawsey report. 

  • At the luncheon: “Mr. Trump dismissed former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr. as 'dumb,' called Senator Chuck Schumer of New York a 'nasty son of a bitch' and mocked Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, who he said 'choked like a dog' at a news conference where he tried to explain a racist yearbook photo, according to multiple people in the room,” Baker and Grynbaum report. 

 

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On The Hill

"A SEA OF SUFFRAGETTE WHITE”: Even if your TV was on mute, it was difficult to miss the new power on visible display as House Democratic women cloaked themselves in white outfits to symbolize the fight for women's rights. With Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hovering over Trump's shoulder and the camera panning to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D- N.Y.) every five minutes for a reaction shot, Democrats rivaled Trump in commanding " a chamber that for two years gave him a warm Republican embrace,” per The Post's Elise Viebeck and Paul Kane. But afterward, Trump's bipartisan outreach was not well received and Democrats offered blunt responses: 

  • “Trump’s comments on illegal immigration elicited groans, leading Pelosi to raise her hand in an attempt to quiet her members. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a former Somali refu­gee, listened while holding her head in her hands,” Viebeck and Kane report. 

  • Reaction from Politico's Burgess Everett, Heather Caygle, and John Bresnahan: “'WTF,' said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) afterward about Trump’s immigration rhetoric. 'Sickening,' added Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill). Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said he wasn’t sure Washington needs to even hold a State of the Union anymore. And Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) invoked Richard Nixon three times when discussing Trump’s speech.” 
  • More: "'I heard no unity tonight. Even the issues on which I think there should be a bipartisan basis, taking on the high cost of drugs, doing a significant investment in infrastructure, we heard no details and no plan. We heard the same empty campaign style rhetoric we've heard before,' said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).”

  • Key:"Even [West Virginia Sen. Joe] Manchin, oftentimes the president’s only ally among Senate Democrats, said the president could have done without some of the immigration rhetoric: 'That part should have been left out.'”

As for Republicans, their "thunderous applause and gushing accolades ... offered a reminder that, for all their policy differences and frustrations, the GOP is still very much the party of Trump," reports my colleague Robert Costa.

  • Key: "It was typical of how Republicans have responded to Trump throughout his presidency: with reverence and roars despite the surplus of controversies, scandals and fury."

Outside the Beltway

ATLANTA , Ga. — Stacey Abrams, the first African American woman to deliver the official response to a SOTU, delivered a "sharp rebuke" of Trump and the Republican Party, and managed to avoid any distracting gulps of water, obvious missteps or production pitfalls during the process. The Post's Vanessa Williams and Sean Sullivan report that during her 11-minute speech, “Abrams sought to sharpen the distinctions Democrats are seeking to draw with Trump and the GOP ahead of the next election, as well as introduce herself to a broad audience ahead of a possible Senate run here in Georgia, a potential 2020 battleground.” 

  • Rising star: “The excitement surrounding Abrams’s speech, which she delivered from an electrical workers union hall in Atlanta, was hard to miss in recent days. Abrams, 45, has become a marquee figure in her party after nearly being elected the nation’s first black female governor in Georgia in November,” Williams and Sullivan write. 

  • The issues: “Abrams has long stressed voting rights and registration, an issue increasingly important to Democrats, who have made the case nationally that GOP officials are placing obstacles in the paths of minority and other voters,” the duo reports. 

  • The shutdown: "The shutdown was a stunt engineered by the president of the United States, one that defied every tenet of fairness and abandoned not just our people but our values,” Abrams said during her remarks.  

Democratic strategists also praised Abrams, who lost a bid for Georgia governor in 2018, for striking the right tone in her condemnation of Trump, speaking as a progressive who appeals to more Southern, moderate voters: 

  • "'Stacey Abrams is the face that the Democratic Party would like to project . . . That's where the energy in the party lies: youth and diversity,' said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist. Payne said 2020 candidates should heed how Abrams speaks to liberals in the party's base, but also to voters in conservative states like Georgia. 'The biggest lesson that the 2020 hopefuls can take from Stacey Abrams is to contest and vie for every single vote,'" per Reuters.   

The Investigations

FALSE CHOICE: One of the most eye-roll inducing lines of Trump's speech last night was the false dilemma he posed between ... war and investigations: "An economic miracle is taking place in the United States -- and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations. If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation." It was a line that reminded some of President Richard Nixon's, "One year of Watergate is enough" quip during that president's 1974 SOTU address. 

Fact Check: Justin Wolfers, an economic professor at the University of Michigan, weighed in by tweeting: “I'm not aware of an economic boom ever dying due to 'partisan investigations.'”

While we are on the topic, there are a few hearings on said investigations this week. Here's a quick look ahead: 

  • Todat: The House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing on the H.R. 1, the “For the People Act,” on ethics reforms for the executive branch.
  • “The American people voted for accountability and transparency from this Administration, and Democrats have introduced this legislation to deliver on that promise,” Chair Elijah Cummings (D- Md.) said in a statement.  “I look forward to hearing from the expert witnesses on the critical reforms in H.R. 1 to ensure the government is working effectively and efficiently for all people.”
  • Also today: The House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on the Arabian Peninsula. Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) has said that he wants to examine the “whole relationship” with Saudi Arabia, but a priority is looking closely at U.S. involvement in Yemen.
  • Thursday: The House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee will hold a hearing on provisions in H.R. 1 that require presidential candidates to release their tax returns once they become the party nominee. 
  • Friday: Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is slated to testify in front of the House Judiciary Committee, where he'll be forced to answer uncomfortable questions about Trump's relationship with the Department of Justice.
  • Topper: Michael Cohen is supposed to appear at a private hearing on Friday for House Intelligence Committee. 

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When you forget to eat dinner before the after party: